Israel’s Bait-and-Switch: When the IAF Lured Soviet MiGs to Their Destruction

The tip of the 1967 Six-Day Struggle left Israeli forces on the east aspect of the Suez Canal and Egyptian forces on the west aspect, however there was no peace settlement, solely an off-the-cuff ceasefire. On March 8, 1969, a pissed off Egyptian Presi-dent Gamal Abdel Nasser declared an finish to the ceasefire and began the “Struggle of Attrition.” Egyptian artillery started a heavy bombardment of Israel Protection Forces (IDF) positions on the japanese aspect of the canal with the hope of forcing the Israeli authorities into concessions or a withdrawal. The IDF artillery was no match for the Egyptians, so the Israelis responded with heavy Israeli Air Power (IAF) strikes on Egyptian artillery and navy positions alongside the canal. 

Egyptian MiGs tried to cease the assaults, however their poorly educated pilots have been decimated by the well-trained Israelis flying French-built delta-wing Mirage IIIs—“Triangles.” The Egyptians started to maneuver SA-2 surface-to-air missiles near the canal to guard their artillery, prompting the IAF to launch a sequence of assaults towards the SAM websites. 

Enter the phantom

On September 5, 1969, the primary F-4E Phantom IIs arrived in Israel from the US. The Phantom—rapidly dubbed the “Hammer” by the IAF—introduced a brand new dimension to the battle because it took over a lot of the assaults on the missile websites. By late November 1969, the SAMs had been neutralized and, for the following 4 months, the Egyptians didn’t try and advance any extra missiles towards the canal. 

Israeli floor crewmen symbolically cowl a brand new F-4E’s U.S. nationwide insignia with the IAF’s Star of David. (Courtesy of Marshall Michel)

However the Egyptians confirmed no willingness to barter. Israel escalated the air conflict starting in January 1970 with Operation Pricha (Blossom), as Phantoms started to fly bombing raids deep into Egypt to assault strategic targets such because the Egyptian commando headquarters. The Israelis hoped the strikes would drive President Nasser out of workplace or at a minimal compel him to declare a ceasefire. 

The brand new January deep strikes by Phantoms have been very damaging and did certainly threaten the Nasser regime. However relatively than accede to Israeli calls for, on January 24 Nasser flew to Moscow to plead—certainly demand—that his Soviet sponsors offered Egypt with a dependable air protection community.

A serious defeat of their fundamental Arab consumer state was unacceptable to the Soviets, so starting in March 1970 the USSR despatched the entire 18th Particular Anti-Plane Rocket Division to Egypt. The unit was geared up with the most recent SA-2 SAMs and the newer SA-3, and in addition included three squadrons from the one hundred and thirty fifth Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Air Protection Forces geared up with the MiG-21MF. Quickly there have been 10,000 Soviet advisers in Egypt serving to the Egyptians to increase the SAM missile websites towards the Suez Canal.

The Soviet MiG-21 “Fishbed” models have been primarily based south of Cairo and didn’t share air bases with the Egyptians, so there was little interplay between the Russian and Egyptian pilots. The Soviets didn’t hassle to request details about Israeli ways from their Egyptian counterparts, mocked the Egyptian pilots’ braveness and disparaged their flying expertise. Since few Soviets spoke Arabic, they introduced their very own radar controllers, which made it simple for the various Russian-speaking immigrants in Israeli intelligence to watch Soviet radio transmissions.

IAF commander Mordechai “Motti” Hod (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir be a part of pilot Avihu Ben-Nun in analyzing the cockpit of a just-delivered F-4E. (Courtesy of Marshall Michel)

After the Soviets arrived, Israeli Minister of Protection Moshe Dayan turned involved that Russian personnel could be killed within the deep-penetration Phantom assaults, so in April 1970 he halted the deep strikes and the IAF returned to attacking the brand new SAM batteries approaching the Suez Canal. However regardless of repeated strikes on the batteries, the Soviets slowly superior the missile websites nearer to the canal, and on June 30 Soviet-operated SAMs downed two Israeli Phantoms. In July the brand new websites shot down two extra F-4s, killing one of many IAF’s most excellent squadron commanders, Shmuel Hetz. 

Whereas the SAMs took a toll, the air fight story was completely different. There have been common air battles over Egypt south and west of Suez Metropolis, an space dubbed “Texas” by the IAF pilots as a result of they styled themselves as gunfighters within the Wild West (IAF pilots most popular to depend on their inside cannon as a substitute of air-to-air missiles). The battles resulted
in heavy Egyptian losses, which made the Egyptians reluctant to interact Israeli fighters.

The arrival of the F-4s offered new air-to-air capabilities—long-range radar and AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles—that the Mirages lacked. To catch the MiGs, the aggressive Israeli fighter pilots started setting traps for the Egyptians codenamed “Rimon” (Pomegranate), with the F-4s and Mirages working collectively. One such lure concerned flying transport plane or helicopters into the Suez Canal space and, when MiGs have been launched towards them, Israeli fighters flying under the Egyptian radar climbed and intercepted them. Throughout the Struggle of Attrition, near 100 Egyptian MiGs have been downed in air fight towards the lack of solely 4 Mirages, with two pilots bailing out over Israeli territory.

Previous to the 1969 supply of latest Phantoms from the US, the Dassault Mirage IIICJ served with distinction because the IAF’s supersonic mainstay. (PhotoStock-Israel Alamy)

In June 1970 Israeli radio intelligence reported that the Soviet pilots have been starting to fly fight patrols to complement the Egyptian MiGs. When Soviet MiGs tried to intercept an IAF reconnaissance flight over Cairo, protection minister Dayan ordered the IAF to interrupt off contact every time they appeared, a lot to the Israeli pilots’ frustration. 

This Israeli reluctance to confront the Soviets appeared to embolden them, they usually moved their SAM websites nearer and nearer to the Suez Canal. The IDF chief of employees, Lt. Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev, and IAF commander Brig. Gen. Mordechai “Motti” Hod started pushing Dayan exhausting for extra aggressive actions towards the Soviets. On July 25 the dynamic modified when Soviet MiGs attacked and broken an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk that needed to make an emergency touchdown at a base within the central Sinai desert. After the assault on the Skyhawks, Prime Minister Golda Meir modified course and determined to confront the Soviets. 

Borrowing “Operation Bolo”

The IAF developed an operation, Rimon 20, through which it might ship seemingly weak plane into Egyptian airspace to induce the Soviets to assault. The idea was related in execution to the Vietnam Struggle’s Operation Bolo, led by legendary U.S. Air Power fighter pilot Colonel Robin Olds. The primary a part of Rimon 20 would simulate a high-altitude flight of two photograph­reconnaissance Mirage IIIs. However as a substitute of the conventional two unarmed photograph Mirages, the drive would consist of 4 absolutely armed Mirages flying in tight formation to provide the looks of a two-ship recon flight on Soviet radar. 

The second a part of the operation consisted of a four-ship flight of F-4Es that might simulate an A-4 ground-attack mission alongside the canal. In the meantime, 4 Mirages would fly low beneath Soviet radar protection nicely to the south of the F-4s and 4 extra Mirages could be on quick-reaction alert at Rephidim air base within the central Sinai.

Every taking part squadron was advised to fill the attacking drive with its finest pilots. There was intense competitors within the squadrons about which pilots would fly the missions and, beneath the watchful eyes of IAF commander Hod and the wing commanders, every squadron commander picked the very best pilots, largely MiG killers. 

The “bait” flight simulating the reconnaissance plane would consist of 4 Mirages from 119 Squadron from Tel Nof air base. Squadron commander Lt. Col. Amos Amir led the flight, Asher Snir was quantity two, Avraham Salmon quantity three and Avi Gilad quantity 4. 

Three IAF Mirages and a pair of F-4s take flight. (Courtesy of Marshall Michel)

The 4 F-4Es that might fly the A-4 assault profile over the canal got here from Ramat David air base’s 69 Squadron. Their pilots hoped to make use of the Phantoms’ long-range radar to find the MiGs and maybe launch their Sparrows. The four-ship ingredient could be led by squadron commander Avihu Ben-Nun. His quantity two was the second deputy squadron commander, Aviem Sella; quantity three was deputy squadron commander Ehud Hankin; and Uri Gil was quantity 4. For the reason that F-4s had been primarily used for floor assault, their pilots’ victory scores weren’t as strong because the 24 of the Mirage pilots within the bait flight—“solely” seven MiG kills within the Phantom flight. 

The low-altitude flight of 4 Mirages from 117 Squadron additionally got here from Ramat David, led by squadron commander Uri Even-Nir, with Itamar Neuner as quantity two, Yehuda Koren as quantity three and Kobi Richter as quantity 4. A reserve flight of 4 Mirages from 101 Squadron, led by squadron commander Iftach Spector, would sit on alert at Rephidim. 

The operation was scheduled for July 29, and on the twenty seventh the commanders and flight leads flew to Tel Aviv for the general mission briefing at Sde Dov airfield. On the briefing Dayan advised the group they have been going to battle the Soviets and made it clear that they have been to shoot down as many MiGs as potential. On the identical time, Brig. Gen. Hod additionally emphasised that whereas the IAF pilots would use their regular tactical two-ship flights, through which the primary member of the flight who noticed the MiGs led the assault, the pairs should keep collectively. It was vital that no IAF plane be shot down—“their quantity doesn’t matter, ours have to be zero!” As regular Hod would maintain a stopwatch on the battle. 

“We have been advised it was time to point out the Russians what ‘Texas’ is,” Ben-Nun later mentioned of the briefing. “We have been very excited, not afraid, however we didn’t know what to anticipate, as a result of we thought the Russians would have completely different and extra superior armament.”

When the July 29 mission was postponed, most of the IAF pilots thought the federal government had misplaced its nerve, however it was rescheduled for the following day. At 2 p.m. on July 30 the 4 absolutely armed Mirage IIIs from 119 Squadron took off and started to fly a normal reconnaissance profile, beginning with a low-altitude flight into Egyptian airspace within the far south on the southern shores of the Gulf of Suez, the place the Soviet MiGs have been recognized to function. The Mirages then climbed and turned north at 35,000 ft, the usual altitude for a photorecon mission, in tight formation to appear to be a two-ship photograph flight on radar. The Triangles then continued flying the conventional route towards Suez Metropolis, utilizing the usual reconnaissance radio calls. 

Twelve Soviet MiG-21MFs took the bait and launched from two separate bases to intercept the “reconnaissance” Mirages. At about the identical time the F-4s from 69 Squadron simulating the A-4 assault struck an Egyptian radar website, and eight extra MiGs have been launched from further bases and despatched towards the supposed Skyhawks.

Splash the MiGs!

Israeli fighter radar controllers detected the MiGs. The F-4Es started to shut on them from the east, however the low flight of 4 117 Squadron Mirages was nicely south of the Phantoms on station over the Sinai and was experiencing issues. The chief and quantity two have been compelled to abort with engine hassle, so Yehuda Koren and Kobi Richter, numbers three and 4, entered the battle as a pair late. 

The primary two four-ship MiG formations approached the bait Mirages, name signal Arbel, in path from the west and the Mirages turned east to convey the MiGs nearer to the Pink Sea border between Israel and Egypt. The MiGs have been 20 miles behind them because the Mirages approached the Pink Sea and turned again west. Flight chief Amir referred to as “Arbel, drop tanks” because the Phantoms additionally climbed into the battle, however the F-4s had a confused radar image, so that they entered the battle with out firing their AIM-7s. 

Avraham Salmon, quantity three within the bait flight, noticed two MiGs first barely excessive to his left at 11 o’clock behind two F-4s. He turned to assault them and fired an AIM-9D Sidewinder at one of many MiGs. The missile made a big barrel roll earlier than hitting and destroying the MiG. Salmon referred to as “Arbel Three has shot down one!” and watched with shock because the MiG pilot’s parachute opened instantly—in all probability blown open—and the Russian started his sluggish descent from 30,000 ft because the battle raged round him. 

In the meantime the lead pair of bait Mirages flown by Amir and Asher Snir went after the second MiG-21 flight. Snir noticed two MiGs as they handed overhead and turned exhausting left to assault them, however Amir was quickly blinded by the solar and overpassed Snir, who was attacked by a second MiG. Amir heard Snir name “Arbel Two has a kill” adopted by “Arbel Two has been hit, heading again, airplane is beneath management,” so he tried to discover a MiG for himself. The swirling dogfight circled the falling parachute, and the Israelis used the chute as a marker to name their place—“Arbel 4 is 4 kilometers west of the chute heading north at 17,000…” 

The F-4 pair of Ben-Nun and Sella flew by the battle looking for targets whereas utilizing their velocity to maintain MiGs from closing from behind, however Sella discovered himself at 15,000 ft with a MiG on his tail. He carried out a high-G barrel roll and simply compelled the MiG into an overshoot—Sella later mentioned that “the Russian made each mistake within the e book”—and pulled behind the MiG because it spiraled down from 15,000 ft. After two or three turns, at 2,000 ft Sella arrived at a firing place and launched an AIM-9D. It appeared to hit the MiG, however when the smoke cleared the fighter was nonetheless flying. Sella fired a second Sidewinder however earlier than it arrived the MiG broke aside and the Soviet pilot bailed out. 

The 2 117 Squadron Mirages flown by Koren and Richter got here into the battle at low altitude, then jettisoned their exterior gas tanks and climbed. They appeared down on a sky filled with maneuvering plane—F-4s, MiGs and Mirages—in addition to crisscrossing missile contrails. Recognizing a flight of 4 MiGs under, they dove on them, scattering the enemy plane in all instructions. The 2 Mirage pilots picked out a lone MiG and pursued him. The Soviet pilot maneuvered wildly as he descended, and Richter fired a Shafrir missile that didn’t information, then couldn’t get his second Shaf­rir to launch. Koren then tried to fireside his Shafrir however couldn’t get a missile tone, so he closed for a cannon assault from behind and under the MiG.

The F-4 chief, Ben-Nun, had additionally seen the identical MiG however apparently not the Mirages, and the Israelis started a high-speed chase simply above the desert. Ben-Nun fired a Sidewinder that exploded however the MiG saved flying at excessive velocity. His backseater, Shaul Levi, advised him he had a lock on the MiG with the Phantom’s radar and Ben-Nun fired the AIM-7 Sparrow, which streaked over Koren’s cockpit and destroyed the MiG.

In the meantime, after his first kill, Avraham Salmon went after a second MiG. He fired a Sidewinder that detonated near the MiG after which closed for a cannon shot as Iftach Spector, who had been scrambled from alert at Rephidim, joined the battle. Spector was simply behind Salmon’s Mirage and fired two AIM-9Ds on the MiG. The missiles handed above Salmon’s cockpit and exploded behind the MiG, however it appeared undamaged and was nonetheless in a position to speed up away. Salmon adopted and emptied his cannon at lengthy vary, then, low on gas, he and Spector gave up the chase.

Ben-Nun (left) shakes palms with wingman Aviem Sella following the wildly profitable mission. (Courtesy of Marshall Michel)

The battle was over in lower than 4 minutes. The shorter-range Mirages needed to land at Rephidim to refuel whereas the 69 Squadron F-4s returned to Ramat David, the place they carried out a high-speed flyover adopted by a “moist down” and wild celebration by the remainder of the bottom. After the Mirages landed, Koren discovered that his Shafrirs had been knocked off their racks when he jettisoned his gas tanks, which was why he couldn’t get a missile tone as he chased the low-flying MiG.

After the battle, one IAF pilot commented, “The Rus­sians have been horrible, however originally it bothered us a bit, as a result of we have been used to an opponent that knew what he needed to do to battle you—even if you happen to have been higher. However for the Russian it appeared they have been merely doing aerobatics as a substitute of aerial fight.” 


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In the long run the Israelis had shot down 5 MiGs through the battle—two by F-4s and three by Mirages. The fifth MiG that Salmon and Spector had fired on crashed on touchdown, and the 2 break up the victory credit score. 

For a few years, the battle was saved secret. The commander of the Soviet air drive arrived in Egypt the day after the battle “for a trip in Luxor,” however it was later realized that when the overall landed he gave the Soviet contingent very clear directions: “Whoever talks to associates within the squadron or to household about this battle will go away Egypt, and the airplane he flies on will take off for Siberia.” The Israeli pilots have been additionally forbidden to debate the engagement and couldn’t paint Russian flag kill markings on their plane.  

Marshall Michel is a retired U.S. Air Power colonel who flew F-4s and F-15s and was the air attaché to Israel from 1976 to 1980. He recommends for additional studying: Israeli Mirage and Nesher Aces and Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces, each by Shlomo Aloni; and Israeli Phantoms: The “Kurnass” in IDF/AF Service 1969–1988, by Andreas Klein and Shlomo Aloni.

This function appeared within the March 2022 challenge of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a difficulty, Subscribe!